The Monkey Trial and the Rise of Fundamentalism: From the Editor — A Movement to Make One Mad

SOME THEOLOGIES make the eyes glaze over; others make the blood boil. To me, Calvinism is intellectually coherent; medieval scholasticism, logically rigorous; and the Anglicanism of a Richard Hooker, emotionally satisfying. But I have to exert a great deal of mental discipline to stick with books of these stripes. Interesting stuff but not stuff that demands my attention.

On the other hand, take liberation theology. It drives me crazy—the philosophical assumptions, the sweeping statements, the judgmentalism. And then there’s all that stuff about concern for the poor that strikes just a little too close to home. I don’t stop reading liberation theology because it finally bores me but because it makes me too angry to go on.

That’s how a lot of people feel about fundamentalism. It’s hard to be neutral about the movement, with all its sweeping statements and judgmentalism—and its jibes about theological and moral compromise that strike just a tad close to home sometimes. There may be many “angry fundamentalists,” but there are also a few angry anti-fundamentalists out there.

This is one reason this topic is a challenge to report on. But there are others.

For example, there is no one event or one person around which the movement crystallizes. The Scopes “Monkey” trial is the most public defining event, yet as you’ll see (on the  Timeline and “ Fundamentalist Network,” it’s just one facet of a much larger and complex movement.

Another example: fundamentalism is not a movement completely distinct from modernism, the movement it reacted against. In some ways, modernism and fundamentalism were both “Enlightenment projects": both labored strenuously to bring the Christian faith under some rational, systematic control. So, the fundamentalist complaint about liberal rationalism is ironically also a fair critique of fundamentalism.

But never let it be said that Christian History shirks its duty in the face of complexity and ambiguity. For us, of course, complexity and ambiguity are not the last responsibilities of historians. We trust you’ll find some unifying themes and intriguing stories that help you understand sympathetically a movement that continues to anger, please, frustrate, puzzle, and impress.

By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #55 in 1997]

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